Left-wingery at the acad­emy

It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to con­clude higher ed­u­ca­tion is lost in tri­flings

The Washington Times Daily - - OPINION - By Daniel Pipes Daniel Pipes (DanielPipes.org, @DanielPipes) is pres­i­dent of the Mid­dle East Fo­rum.

Ijust at­tended a two-day aca­demic con­fer­ence at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, in part out of in­ter­est in the topic (“Amer­i­can & Mus­lim Worlds ca. 1500-1900”), in part to get a first­hand sense of dis­course in the hu­man­i­ties at the con­tem­po­rary univer­sity. As the founder of Cam­pus Watch, I won­dered if it is as bad as our re­ports sug­gest, or whether we fo­cus on out­liers.

My first im­pres­sion was one of in­tel­lec­tual co­zi­ness. A broad con­sen­sus on a com­mon base of lib­eral as­sump­tions crowds out dis­sent­ing opin­ions. A se­ries of hi­er­ar­chies ex­ists:

• Mod­ern bests old.

• Non-Amer­i­can bests Amer­i­can.

• Fe­male bests male.

• Dark skin bests white skin.

• Mus­lim bests non-Mus­lim.

The word “Is­lam­o­pho­bia” is used as though a nor­mal English­language word rather than a pro­pa­gan­dis­tic tool to shut down crit­i­cism. A prom­i­nent 19th cen­tury mis­sion­ary, Henry Jes­sup, was anachro­nis­ti­cally called a “pre-em­i­nent Mus­lim-basher.”

A Cana­dian pro­fes­sor liv­ing in Costa Rica re­sented that the peo­ple of the United States “com­man­deered” the word “Amer­i­can” to ap­ply to them­selves only. One speaker praised the con­fer­ence for hav­ing “prob­lema­tized the cen­tral­ity of the United States.” A mod­er­a­tor wor­ried so much about “Amer­ica-cen­trism” that he asked, “Should we not be do­ing this topic at all? Is there an in­her­ent ar­ro­gance” in Amer­i­cans study­ing Mus­lims? A fris­son rip­pled through the au­di­ence at men­tion of “Trump”; in con­trast, in­vok­ing Ed­ward Said won the pre­dictable ap­proval.

My sec­ond im­pres­sion con­cerns jar­gon. No per­son out­side academe uses words like “prob­lema­tize,” “racial­ize,” and “rel­a­tivize,” much less would he “his­tori­cize the no­tion of imag­i­na­tion.” (What’s with all this turn­ing nouns into verbs with –ize?) Use of the word “and” in the con­fer­ence ti­tle spawned con­sid­er­able de­bate (does it im­ply Amer­ica and the Mus­lim world are com­pletely dif­fer­ent or does it al­low for over­lap?) to the point that this came to be known as “the and prob­lem.”

The third and strong­est im­pres­sion con­cerns triv­i­al­ity, the his­to­ri­ans’ ten­dency to avoid big, mean­ing­ful analy­ses in fa­vor of tri­fling mi­cro-top­ics. They an­swer ques­tions no one asks. This propen­sity blazed brightly at the UPenn con­fer­ence. Pa­pers ti­tled “By­ron’s Houris in Amer­ica: Visual De­pic­tions of Mus­lim Hero­ines in the Gallery of By­ron Beau­ties” or “‘Strangers in the Stranger Lands’: The ‘Rebs and Yanks’ in the Khe­di­val Ci­tadel” turned the wor­thy topic of early U.S.-Mus­lim con­nec­tions into a se­ries of ob­scu­ri­ties. The prize for odd­ity, how­ever, goes to “Bombo’s Amer­ica: An En­ergy-Hu­man­i­ties View of the Early Amer­i­can Ori­en­tal Tale.”

In con­trast, com­pelling and use­ful is­sues barely sur­faced: The role of lit­er­ate Mus­lims among African slaves. The im­pact of the Moro re­bel­lion in the Philip­pines on U.S. opin­ion. The legacy of Protes­tant mis­sion­ar­ies to the Mid­dle East. The per­cent­age of Mus­lims in early Mid­dle Eastern im­mi­gra­tion. The way ped­dlers be­came dry-goods store own­ers and then, dis­pro­por­tion­ately, liquor store own­ers. The legacy of the Shriners, of­fi­cially known as the An­cient Ara­bic Or­der of the Nobles of the Mys­tic Shrine, with its mock Mecca Tem­ples and other Is­lamic mo­tifs.

The con­fer­ence was ad­ver­tised as “free and open to the pub­lic but reg­is­tra­tion is re­quired,” so I signed up, thereby sig­nal­ing the or­ga­niz­ers and speak­ers of my pres­ence. I can’t be sure, but I sus­pect that Kam­biz GhaneaBas­siri’s gra­tu­itous men­tion of my 1990 ar­ti­cle ti­tle, “The Mus­lims are Com­ing! The Mus­lims are Com­ing!” was in­tended for my ben­e­fit. Like­wise, the re­peated or­der that the con­fer­ence not be recorded on au­dio or video seemed di­rected squarely at me. It’s an odd de­mand from an aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion, which by its na­ture wants to reach a wider pub­lic, but un­der­stand­able given how of­ten Cam­pus Watch has ex­posed Mid­dle East stud­ies ex­cesses by record­ing events. I doubt that pro­hi­bi­tion is legally en­force­able.

I grew up around a univer­sity (my fa­ther Richard is a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus) and went on to earn a doc­tor­ate in me­dieval his­tory, so I ini­tially ex­pected the cam­pus ever to be cen­tral in my life. Then, be­cause it rad­i­cal­ized and I did not, my con­nec­tion to the acad­emy with­ered. Now, on oc­ca­sional re­turn vis­its to it, I in­vari­ably feel alien­ated by the left-wingery, the jar­gon and the ar­ro­gant ir­rel­e­vance. While glad I es­caped its clutches, I worry about the fu­ture of Amer­i­can (that word again) higher ed­u­ca­tion. So, yes, Cam­pus Watch has it right.

The Fox News Chan­nel re­vealed that half of Amer­i­cans are ready for an al­ter­na­tive me­dia. When will ed­u­ca­tors fig­ure out the same logic ap­plies to uni­ver­si­ties?

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